Interviews with Morgan Bamford and Kevin Smook
The 2019 Alberta provincial election is coming up April 16 and voters will be deciding whether they want to give Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party (NDP) another term in the leadership or shift power to the hands of another party such as Jason Kenny’s United Conservative Party (UCP).
The Alberta Party, headed by former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, may have the potential to split the vote between the parties, which would result in a minority government come election day.
One of the major topics surrounding this election is the future of post-secondary education and the party policies, visions and priorities with regards to issues like tuition, unemployment among recent graduates, and secondary education reforms.
The Medium reached out to all of the major candidates running to represent the Camrose constituency to get a sense of their vision for education in Alberta on both the post-secondary and secondary levels. All candidates accepted our invitation for an interview except for Jackie Lovely, the candidate for the UCP, who said responded with “the party is working on policy. Your request for an interview is premature.”
Morgan Bamford (Candidate for the NDP- Camrose Constituency)
Tell us about yourself. Who you are, and why you are running?
I am originally from Edmonton, I am a lifelong Albertan, and I am a relatively new transplant of the Camrose region. My wife and I moved here a year and a half ago from Edmonton, we were looking for a place in Alberta where she could take an after-degree in nursing. We decided to move to Camrose because we really liked the lifestyle, the amenities, and the sense of intimacy it offered.
We have very much embraced life in the community, and it is very exciting to have this opportunity to run for a party that I think aligns very well with my values, and we are at such an important juncture here in Alberta’s political history.
I am an alumnus of the University of Alberta and I graduated from Native Studies in 2011. I went on to obtain my MBA in Community Economic Development from Cape Breton University. I specialized in First Nations community economic development, working in a variety of roles related to Indigenous community economic development and community building. Currently, I am an employee of the City of Edmonton, managing the Indigenous Relations office as the supervisor, working to build the capacity for Indigenous relations across the city of Edmonton and to build relations with the community.
What is your position on the UCP’s proposal of rewriting the provincial curriculum?
The UCP seems to be under the illusion that the curriculum rewrite, which has not been revisited in decades depending on the course on the grade level, is going to be ideologically infused with some sort of social democratic value system. In fact, what the NDP is doing through their modernization of the curriculum is making up for the Progressive Conservatives in-action when it comes to curriculum development. The curriculum did not include a lot of contemporary concepts which are very prevalent, and important for young people today to be aware of – things like climate change, up-to-date consent focused sex education, new kinds of technology are working their way into the curriculum and making sure young people have the skills they need to take advantage of the opportunities of tomorrow. That has been the cornerstone of this curriculum. We are very concerned that Jason Kenny and the UCP team started talking about putting that curriculum in the shredder and going back on the hard work that many educators, teachers, and a wide cross-section of the education system have provided input into over several years. By investing education on the K-12 level and further on the post-secondary level we will be focusing on tomorrow rather than the past.
How are you planning on funding education on a secondary and post-secondary level?
When the province went into a recession, we were faced with a couple of different options. On one hand, we could take the austerity approach and cut services to try and compensate for the economic downturn which we know would only exacerbate the challenges faced by families. If you have somebody in the household whose employment is being reduced, or is precarious or is being laid-off, the last thing you need to do is having to worry about your children getting a sub-par education, or not being able to go to the hospital to get a procedure or meet with a specialist.
In 2015, the NDP made the conscious decision of investing in education. In the case of K-12, they committed to modernizing or replacing 200 schools across the province. This year alone 36,000 students began their school year in a new or modern classroom, part of the NDP’s school revitalization program. In Camrose, they committed to replacing Chester Ronning School. The PC’s of the past had the habit of announcing school and taking photo-ops with schools but never actually getting the work done. The NDP have challenged that and have committed to these major capital projects. They are also investing in operating funding for schools to hire the teachers they need to serve their students. The NDP has also focused on increasing the budget for the operational funding for schools.
What is the NDP’s vision of current tuition policies it is implementing? And how will they address the current policies of the University of Alberta and institutions who have sought to rely more heavily on high rates of tuition paid by international students?
What is important to our party is making sure that education is affordable and accessible to people from all walks-of-life. If you want to go to post-secondary you should be able to, and that is why there are such a wide range of programs available in this province. Everything from apprenticeship programs to applied studies in colleges, to undergraduate programs. In order to make it as affordable as possible we are continuing and in fact increasing the funding for post-secondary institutions at a core level (meaning more operational funding), which has increased yearly, so that institutions are able to continue all of their programs and innovate on new programs.
One of the things the party has done to make post-secondary more affordable to students was to institute a tuition freeze. And in order to help with institutions cope with the tuition freeze, we increased their operational funding year after year.
We do see that post-secondary institutions play an important role in their community, nationally and internationally with their research, special projects and innovations of new programs and new technologies, and we want to make sure institutions have the resources they need to achieve that. A way you can really prevent that is by electing a government that wants to offer major tax breaks and will have to figure out a way to compensate for those through major cuts to public services which include post-secondary education.
The most important thing for us is to keep tuition at a manageable level, that is why the NDP has frozen tuition at the 2015 rate as part of a 5-year commitment. And following that, tuition will only go up relative to the cost of living that is the consumer price index. And this is one of the best ways to ensure that tuition remains affordable, accessible, and to make sure that young people are not leaving the system with a degree accompanied with massive amounts of debt that will cripple them once they enter the workforce. We want to do whatever we can to make post-secondary affordable and accessible to students.
How will you make sure that students graduate from university with financial security?
You can look at our record. It has been focused on economic diversification, fighting hard for the vital industries of our province, and preparing for the future. In terms of economic diversification, the province has been working hard to make our petrochemical refining industries very lucrative and very attractive to investors. It seems to me that every week we have a major announcement regarding petrochemical refining in the media because it’s gaining a lot of traction. We have also fought hard for our traditional industries, oil in particular. We really do support the oil and gas sector in Alberta and recognize its importance and we are fighting hard for a pipeline that even when there was a conservative government in Alberta and in Ottawa, as well conservative mayors in Edmonton and Calgary, couldn’t get built. In terms of preparing for our economic future, you see that there are new industries growing in Alberta particularly around Alternative energy and industry that barely existed in our province five to ten years ago. We now have many companies that are working on green energy projects, such as in solar panel production and installation.
We also lowered the small business tax so that small businesses have an easier time launching and getting off the ground. What won’t help young people entering the workforce is being saddled with massive debt through student loans.
We also know that when you have a living wage, you end up with a workforce that has more money in their pocket and is more able to meet their needs as well reinvest that money into the local economy. One thing the NDP did was gradually raise the minimum wage back in 2015, and now it is $15/hr, the highest in Canada, becoming very close to a living wage. And when you raise the minimum wage you are actually injecting the local economy, as the lower wage earners do tend to spend their money in their local community and have the means to meet their needs more readily and to become self-sustaining working professionals which can really apply to the new graduate who is leaving the post-secondary system. However, Jason Kenny has recently been entertaining the idea that some people have lower levels of human capital and are therefore entitled to lower wages. He is interested in a model where young people, liquor servers and people with disabilities may be eligible for lower minimum wages, and that is very concerning. We believe that the closer you get to a living wage, you get to help people up and you support local communities and local businesses at the same time.
Unemployment among youth under the NDP has been very high, what will the party be planning to do differently to tackle this issue?
You raise a good point, and there is no doubt that young people are facing higher levels of unemployment. Many families are struggling and it is a very real struggle. We don’t pretend to mask that, or get away from it or try to pretend it hasn’t happened. But while that is a reality, these investments in economic diversification and making sure young people come out of their education without massive debt is working. We are seeing growth in new industries that barely existed five to ten years ago. We are also doing everything we can to move Alberta oil to new markets, there are no fast solutions sometimes in the environment that we are in and we won’t stop in our efforts to move and transition our economy as a province until every Albertan experiences that recovery.
There are two competing visions here. There is a forward-looking vision, we are looking at the future. We are looking at what skills are going to be important tomorrow, we look at the realities of our world whether that be environmental, economic, legal. We look at how we prosper tomorrow. On the other hand, we have a backward vision with the UCP, which is fixated on yesterday. It’s fixated on making our province attractive to big business at any cost, it’s focused on giving tax breaks to the rich and cutting public services and this competing vision is clearly outlined between our two leaders. We have Rachel Notley that wants to take Alberta forward and we have Jason Kenny who wants to take Alberta backward. And I am proud to be on Rachel’s team as she wants to go forward. I think the choice is clear.
Kevin Smook (Candidate for the Alberta Party- Camrose Constituency)
Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and why you are running?
I am a county councillor at Beaver County, so I understand politics and understand what goes on at meetings and how we connect with our residence. So I have political experience on the municipal level and because of that, I think it’s important that if I become the MLA that I keep that connection to the municipal governments such as the City of Camrose, the County of Camrose and all the towns and villages. I do have that political background municipally but not provincially, and this is a whole different game as it’s a much larger area.
I was born in Calgary, raised in Lethbridge, and went to Mount Royal College. I was in college when I met my current wife. She’s from Viking, and graduated with broadcast journalism diploma out of Mount Royal College. I pursued a radio career and did that for a while, and then decided I wanted to go into business and so that’s why we ended up back here in Alberta, and we’ve been around here for twenty-five going on twenty-six years.
The Alberta Party has tried to fix itself as a centrist alternative between the NDP and the UCP. But what does that mean in terms of policy?
Politically, we are socially progressive and fiscally responsible. We believe in social programs such as a strong healthcare system, strong post-secondary education system, FCSS libraries all of which are vital to Alberta, but at the same time we have to have some financial responsibility because if we continue going the way we’re going in the province, the debt and the deficit will continue to skyrocket and eventually that becomes a big part of the budget just servicing the debt. Under the current government, the deficit is massive and the debt is larger but we don’t believe we can turn this ship around overnight and just cut programs which would just be catastrophic to the province. You have to address the deficit in a manageable way and I believe that the gang on the right (UCP) have a vision of chopping and getting back to balance much faster than what we think is possible. We also believe in consultation and reaching out to the members of our constituency (through town halls and meetings) rather than enact legislation like a sledgehammer as the current government has done with relation to Bill 6 and the carbon tax.
What distinguishes the Alberta Party’s post-secondary education policy from other parties on how it will fund post-secondary institutions and address tuition rates?
You are the future, the students are the future, and not only do we believe in that, but we should also be expanding the number of opportunities along with increasing students enrollment by 45,000 in the next 5 years and another 45,000 after that to keep up with the demand that’s out there. We have talked to university people and they don’t get a sense that there’s a stable funding mechanism in place going forward. There are three components to funding, one is the provincial grant that goes to the university or secondary institution, second is the local tuition and third, the international tuition. There should be financial certainty for the benefit of the student. I think with regards to international tuition that there needs to be a threshold so that you want to make sure that you are collecting what you think is reasonable but also not discouraging international students from coming to the university because they bring diversity, opinions and culture which are helpful for us to grow as a province.
What is the Alberta Party’s vision in terms of secondary education?
We want a student-centric system where the focus is not on the school’s or the post-secondary institutions themselves but focused on the students. The Alberta Party will anticipate adding more supports into education to assist the vulnerable, special needs students. We would increase funding for educational aides for EA’s so that the students that need help will get help. Mental health is a huge challenge not only in grade school but also in post-secondary because of the stresses that students face such as uncertainty of the future and financial insecurity. You work hard to earn your degree and so you’re working long hours and all that stress needs more attention. At the end of January, there was a let’s talk day, and that’s great – but that’s one day – we should be talking about mental health all the time. We shouldn’t be afraid to reach out if we’re in a position where we’re struggling with depression and we should not be ashamed of it. We should proud to be able to reach out for help and I think that we need to do a better job in increasing the mental health services for students.
Jason Kenny has been criticizing the value of having Gay-Straight Alliances in secondary schools by proposing to make it harder for students to join without their parents’ knowledge. Do you support students ability to join GSA’s without their parent’s knowledge?
Yes. Because it comes down to students rights. I think it comes down to supporting the students and if a student joins, there’s a reason why the student joined whether or not they’re in there to support their friends or they need support themselves – there’s a reason. If you look at it from the lens of the student, if we can make it so that students don’t feel as vulnerable and threatened and as isolated, we have an opportunity to improve on that, what’s wrong with it. I don’t see the problem.
Unemployment among youth has risen over the years. What is the proposal of the Alberta Party in helping recent graduates find employment in this economy and assure them a sense of financial security?
We have six principles and guidelines with the Alberta Party, and the person they talk about is prosperity. That’s encouraging entrepreneurship, encouraging business to expand and grow, and encouraging new businesses. I think we need to look at the regulations that we have in place in the province so that we make sure that they’re streamlined enough. I know you have to have some regulations, I get that. But you need to make them more friendly so businesses are willing to expand and diversify. Obviously, the oil and gas sector is struggling, and that’s the tip of the iceberg economy-wise. It’s all the spinoffs that happen from that in all the industries that are dependent on the oil and gas sector that get affected. I think that the role of the government is to have enough regulation in place that makes sense, but not overburden businesses and industries so that they don’t have a fighting chance to be able to grow and expand.
I don’t know what that threshold is, but I’ll let you know. I will champion business and business opportunities for students as they’re going into the workforce. I’d like to see us expand and encourage [economic] diversification while also supporting our agriculture and oil sectors. But we need to encourage more than just agriculture in general and in for where we’re living in the Camrose are we need to encourage more [diversification] so that people will stay here.
I want the Augustana students to look at the Alberta Party as one that has a plan for the future. We want to lead Alberta into the future. I think where we’re at right now is that we need to get control of our spending. Massive deficits and the debt continue to grow and I think we need to pay attention to that. I don’t see where we can balance too quickly, I think we need to to have a party that’s got hope for the future that will lead us into the future and not go backwards in time.
Learn more on Tuesday, April 2, by attending the Provincial Candidates Forum from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Wahkohtowin Lodge. Advanced polls will take place at Augustana Campus between April 9 to 12. More information will be available on the Augustana Students’ Association Facebook page.